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Council discusses University’s financial position

Dame Denise Holt, Chair of Council

When I last wrote, I talked about the role of Council as the University navigates what is likely to be a severe financial impact as a result of Covid-19.

In effect, one of Council’s most important jobs is to oversee and thus offer assurance (to staff and students, to our regulators and government, and to our banks and other sources of funding) as regards the University’s economic well-being and keep a vigilant eye on Sussex’s finances. As the governing body of the University, Council normally meets once each term, but in current exceptional circumstances we are meeting informally at roughly fortnightly intervals. 

For those who don’t know, Council comprises six members of staff, two students, the Vice-Chancellor and the Provost plus 15 independent members (of whom I am one), recruited from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences through open competition. 

Readers may also like to know that these reports are my own personal observations on Council meetings and briefings. They are not intended to be a substitute to the formal minutes (which, once approved, can be accessed via Sussex Direct). Rather, they are designed to give staff and students immediate insight into the key matters on our agenda. 

Our extremely high-calibre Council is very engaged: all members play an active role in sub-committees and pay close attention both to what the University is doing and to developments in the HE sector. Having recently attended the first virtual meeting of the Committee of University Chairs, I was gratified to find that Sussex is among the most active universities in the country in terms of Council interaction and focus.

At an extra Council meeting on Monday (4 May), we heard from the Vice-Chancellor that, while the University expects to break even this year, it will not be until the late summer that next year’s financial position will become clearer. In the main, this reflects uncertainty over recruitment of international and even Home/EU students. At present, all the indicators point to a difficult time ahead for Sussex, as for many other institutions. A small sub-committee of Council, the Sustainability Group, meets weekly to provide assurance to Council (and thus to other interested parties) of the University’s financial solvency, whilst the Audit and Risk Committee will be focusing on post-Covid 19 risks, including financial, at a meeting this week.

The government’s response to the sector’s call for financial support (4 May) is welcome and should stabilise the situation for a while. However, the Vice-Chancellor warned that this might not be sufficient to prevent a number of universities becoming insolvent, merging or forming other partnerships. I am in no doubt that we all must brace ourselves for substantial change across the sector in the coming weeks and months. Council and its committees should do all that it can, working constructively with the executive, to protect the long-term future for both staff and students.  

As an observer at the daily meetings of the Covid-19 response group chaired by the Vice-Chancellor, I know that, throughout the last two stressful months, the University has focused closely on the wellbeing of its students and staff.  It was good to hear that this will continue through, for example, the Employee Assistance Programme, online well-being resources, feedback on staff morale from line managers, and information sharing on how the institution is supporting the Covid-19 pandemic through the Crisis Research Emergency Support (CRES) task force. 

The University usually holds an annual staff survey, which underpins one of the institutional performance indicators relating to staff engagement. This year it was due to take place in May, but in the spirit of keeping demands on staff to a minimum at this time, the Chairs’ Committee of Council agreed in April to postpone the staff survey until later in the year. Council noted this, and encouraged the executive to consider rescheduling the survey before long. Meanwhile, Council also encouraged the executive to ensure that a variety of feedback mechanisms were in place to capture the views of staff on an on-going basis.

Council also heard about proposals to implement a Voluntary Severance scheme. This has been the subject of discussion with all campus trade unions over the last month, and we heard that those meetings have been productive. The scheme will be permissive. That is, only staff can volunteer themselves for this. The scheme has not yet been approved and we will need to hear more about the finances and other scheme elements in the next few weeks before this can progress. Council members aired a variety of views, but the overall sense of the meeting was supportive. It would not be right to say anything more at this stage but, as you would expect, information will be shared widely, if the scheme is given approval.

Lastly, but very definitely not least, we heard about how the University is providing on-going support for current students and prospective students. Like all universities, we are waiting on government advice on the lifting of the lockdown but, as you would expect, planning has started on what a phased return to campus might look like and what that means for students. These will be shared through the University’s normal channels as soon as possible, so that staff and students have all the details. The Student Experience Committee will be reviewing this and other issues impacting students at its next meeting.

Finally, something really uplifting. Many of you will be familiar with the Enlitened app, through which Sussex students have provided feedback on various matters on the running of the University: from wellbeing support to online learning, accommodation and more. In giving this feedback, students are rewarded with Enlitened ‘coins’ and it was heartening to hear that a good number of them chose to donate their coins to charity. This really is symbolic to me of the exceptional bond that binds the Sussex community to their university.

Dame Denise Holt

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By: Harvey Atkinson
Last updated: Wednesday, 6 May 2020

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